If I had to choose one word that describes the Other Worlds Austin 2022 film festival, it would be “melancholy.” I do not believe this was by intention. Even when it began its run nine years ago, an attendee often found themes accreting to the movies and shorts presented. If the 2014 film festival overflowed with an abundance of love for the genre in its various guises and styles, from serious to comic, from intimate character studies to sprawling space opera, then its recent and final showcase served as a reflective concluding chapter. Yes, while there were time slips, fantasy landscapes, and tales of terror, at the heart of most were relationships: some either breaking or on the verge of collapsing, some seemingly damaged beyond repair, or some that faced the realizations of moving on.
If this sounds grim, it’s not meant to be. Not exactly. Earlier this year Other Worlds Austin announced its 2022 festival would be its last. Its founder, Bears Rebecca Fonte, is moving on to other projects. So the selections might be seen as a reflection on that decision. Or perhaps my own sadness at seeing this unique festival colored my attendance. It shouldn’t, because this year’s lineup proved to be one of its strongest.
Initially the festival was to kick off with Mad Heidi, in which a dystopian Switzerland falls under the rule of a cheese tyrant, only to be confronted by a girl from the Swiss Alps who has transformed from a gentle soul to a kick-ass heroine. Because of an issue with the movie’s download, we were treated to the soon-to-be-Christmas classic Violent Night, where a bored Santa (David Harbour) saves a severely dysfunctional family from the hands of a wicked criminal in the guise of John Leguizamo. Of course it’s predictable — think Home Alone meets Die Hard — but it’s not without charm, and made for an enjoyable opening night.
One of the things I noticed in this year’s programming was a lack of forward-looking or future-oriented science fiction. That doesn’t mean it was completely absent. In The Tomorrow Job, writer and director Bruce Wemple offers the possibility of traveling into the body of one’s future self using a pill, and allowing a team of thieves to steal tomorrow’s secrets. A true quill science fiction movie that also functions as a solid crime thriller, it is perhaps more complicated than it needs to be, but remains suspenseful and amusing throughout. One of the nostalgia picks included Peter Hyams’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact, sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I have my own problems with the sequel, it nonetheless suggests the future does not, inherently, need to be dystopian; David Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) utterance “My God, it’s full of stars!” remains a mantra of hope. Beyond Tomorrow, the festival’s big documentary (which I missed, unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict), showcased artist and illustrator Roy Scarfo’s vision of the future, providing a glimpse of his seminal artwork.
What science film festival would be complete without an alien invasion? Snatchers involved purple corn from food trucks and a maid and FDA agent find themselves embroiled in an alien plot after meteor crash in upstate New York. It’s not as wild as it could have been, but always is watchable.
How about fantasy? It was there, and, with The Butterfly Queen, proved one could make a heroic quest using everyday items. An artist and sheep farmer on the verge of losing her farm is rejoined by her best friend, both of whom fall into a portal to another world where magic is powered by art. It’s an often touching study of friendship, grief, and redemption. Think Labyrinth as scripted by Terry Bisson and you’ve got an idea of what to expect.
If the trappings of science fiction and fantasy seemed somewhat sparse, the more overtly horror selections more than compensated, showing how diverse its subjects, themes, and approaches can be. This is especially true with the festival’s two horror comedies. Jesse Thomas Cook’s irreverent Cult Hero tells the story of a real estate agent who sends her husband to a wellness center for a weekend; when she learns the center is in fact a cult with sinister motives, she hires a disgraced celebrity cult buster to break him out. Often funny jabs at reality television, the self-help industry, and Machiavellian business partners make up for an at times sluggish second act. One wonders why Grady Hendrix hasn’t yet penned something similar. Writer-director Emily Hagins’s Sorry About the Demon finds a young man suffering from a recent breakup moving into a haunted house populated by evil spirits. It’s an amusing mixture of John Hughes and James Wan.
In Dark Nature, a therapy group hiking in the wilderness must confront the monsters of their past when they are hunted by a mysterious creature. There are good performances from Hannah Emily Anderson and Madison Walsh, along with good direction and scene setting from director Berkley Brady, though the story (by Brady and cowriter Tim Cairo) could have used a little more polish. Also faced with terror in the woods were the leads in Dane Elcar’s Brightwood, when a married couple teetering on the edge of divorce goes for a run and find themselves unable to leave the trail around a secluded pond. The movie depends on the performances of Dana Berger and Max Woertendyke, both of whom are excellent. Brightwood is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode by Serling or a story by Richard Matheson, but always is its own thing. For me it was one of the festival’s highlights.
The anthology film Scare Package premiered at Other Worlds Austin 2019 and was a huge hit. Based on the audience reaction, Scare Package II: Rad Chad’s Revenge, will be at least as popular. By turns funny and gross, it allows multiple directors the opportunity to tell metafictional stories at the insistence of its title character, a security guard who met his demise in the previous movie. It’s a lot of fun, with some surprising cameos.
And there was the non-supernatural thriller Influencer, in which the eponymous character is befriended by a young woman with sinister motives. Lushly photographed in Thailand, it’s about loneliness and isolation, and the dangers posed by those who live a life almost entirely online. Director Kurtis David Harder knows how to ratchet up the tension (not surprising given his previous Other Worlds Austin entry Spiral), with Cassandra Naud turning in a strong performance as the villainous CW.
Between Before, the closing movie, best sums up the what made the festival so great. On the surface, writer-director Sutton McKee’s picture is small: married couple Ari and John (Megan Sousa and Daniel Ballard) are separating as Ari is on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough. As they reminisce, wounds try to heal, secrets are revealed, and a government team tries to take Ari’s invention. It’s a chamber piece with implications both large and small, and reminds viewers that Other Worlds Austin was among the best at finding unique science fiction.
It’s no surprise that before each movie Sigrid’s “It Gets Dark” played over the reel featuring images from the festival’s offerings. (Or that the track is the first on her album entitled How to Let Go…maybe there was some intention, after all.) “It gets dark so I can see the stars,” the Norwegian singer tells us in the refrain, a phrase with deep meaning for those who take pleasure in going to movies and seeing stories in pictures, put together so people in a darkened room can witness something they’ve never set eyes on before. We see the highs, and the lows, of humanity in this year’s festival. This has been a great nine-year ride with a staff dedicated to finding compelling tales of who we are and what we can be.
You will be missed, Other Worlds Austin, but in the mind of this writer, you won’t be forgotten.
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Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. His work has appeared in The Horror Zine, Rayguns Over Texas!, Horror U.S.A.: Texas, Campfire Macabre, The Dread Machine, and Generation X-ed.
He lives in Central Texas.